How to conduct a stakeholder workshop virtually during a global health crisis

15 September 2020
By Naomi Gibbs


I am a ScHARR PhD student, approaching my final year. My academic background is in economics and health economics, but I also have 10 years work experience in the third sector.

Alcohol poses a significant public health problem in South Africa and there is real interest in effective policy solutions. I am trying to contribute evidence via building a health economic model of a minimum unit price, with a focus on how the policy might affect groups of people differently, for example rich vs poor. A minimum unit price basically removes the cheapest alcohol from the market, such as the wine pictured below which is £1.16 per litre (although this is far from the cheapest alcohol available).

Plastic wine bottles of different sizes displayed on top of a barrel in a shop

Stakeholder engagement is key to make sure the modelling fits with the context. It has allowed me to see the problem through a new lens and given me the opportunity to listen to diverse voices; something I really enjoy.

My stakeholders began with scoping interviews in August 2019. In November 2019, I went to South Africa to deliver the first of three planned workshops.

In this initial workshop I asked stakeholders to complete a mapping exercise of alcohol harm in South Africa. I then asked them to choose the specific pricing policy they would like modelled, for example a change to taxation levels or structure, minimum prices, ban on discounting or any other pricing policy. They chose minimum pricing. They then highlighted subgroups of interest (women, poor, heavy drinkers, different age groups) and health outcomes they wanted included in the model. Because of this workshop I discovered that violence and HIV were critical to include in the alcohol model.

My second workshop aimed to inform them of my progress so far and seek feedback on assumptions and critical modelling decisions, for example do we expect drinkers to switch to home brewing when facing a price increase and if so, to what extent. I also wanted to use it to present some preliminary results and discuss communication strategies.

I was ready to go to deliver the workshop face to face in Cape Town, South Africa in May 2020 when Covid-19 hit. Since the date was already in everyone’s diaries, and with no way of knowing when my stakeholders or I would be able to travel and meet again, I decided to deliver the workshop online. This involved a significant rewrite of the workshop material, it had to be shorter and clearer. I had to think about how I would gather stakeholder feedback in an online context. I also needed to learn about the software as I didn’t want incompetence with the technology to be a distraction.

I was pleased with the outcome of my online workshop; it was well attended, I received positive feedback on the content and format and, crucially I got what I needed to shape the next stage of my research. This included suggestions for data sources, choice of assumptions, direction for what other health outcomes should be included in the model, advice on how to present results and a collective communication strategy for the final results.

Part of my success was due to circumstance; the sale of alcohol had been banned entirely during lockdown in South Africa. This made it a hot policy topic and encouraged attendance. Additionally people were far more familiar and competent with, online meetings as Covid-19 restrictions meant they had become the new normal. Nevertheless, I spent a lot of time and effort carefully preparing and planning the webinar which was critical to the smooth running on the day.

Front slide, text: Webinar - progress with an alcohol pricing model for south africa, 14th May 2020

Despite the success I would like to mention one pitfall from running the workshop online. In my experience community groups found it harder to engage than policy makers and academics. Members of community groups often had poor internet connections and older computers, and sometimes couldn’t even find a space to facilitate their participation.

This was a loss and although I have tried to follow it up with them individually, I struggled to get the level of engagement I got when I was in a room with them in November. For my final workshop I will ask the stakeholders who struggled to engage with the workshopif there is anything I can do to help facilitate their engagement. Perhaps it will help to send hard copies of materials in advance with stamped addressed envelopes for feedback. If you are reading this and have an idea please let me know. It is important to the research to make it as inclusive as possible.

I benefited massively from the input of lots of different people. Learning Technologists, information governance, ethics committees, supervisors, peers, family and friends. Don’t think you have to do it all by yourself. I am very grateful to the six peers who kindly gave up their time to go through my materials and provide such useful advice, it would not have been half as good without them! So I thought I would share with you a list of simple tasks that helped me organise my webinar, maybe it will help you in conducting your own online workshop. I hope so.

On that note if you want any further help or advice please do feel free to get in touch.

Naomi Gibbs


  • Consult your institution’s information governance team about data management before you choose your platform and submit your ethics application.

  • Consult a learning technologist within your institution and ask them to teach you how to use the software (I used blackboard collaborate and enjoyed it as it felt like a very controlled environment, the slides are uploaded in advance, the live polls and chat box are very simple).

  • Rewrite your consent forms online (I used google forms as this complied with information governance rules).

  • On receipt of ethical approval invite your recipients to your event. Provide them with a link to the online consent form and the participant information sheet. Tell participants they will not receive a link to the event until they have completed the consent form.

  • Plan your material, make it as short as possible (2 hours maximum) and make it interactive. Blackboard collaborate allows you to use live polls. Although these are a bit clunky, as you can’t pre-load them, they are invaluable at making you feel connected to your stakeholders and keeping their attention away from their inbox.

  • Use online short questionnaires to gather written feedback throughout the online workshop. You can post the link into the chatbox and participants can simply click through. Split the material into 10 minute chunks. This will break the session up nicely for participants between listening and providing feedback.

  • Schedule a tea break for half way. This is really important for you but also for your participants.

  • Pilot your material a lot. Test it with anybody who will listen, family or friends first, then upgrade to peers. Make sure you also complete a technical run-through with your least technologically competent stakeholders (if you know who they are).

  • Give time at the beginning to let people introduce themselves and say what their interest in the topic is. At the end, give people an opportunity to offer one key point about the research, however also give them the option to pass. Sometimes the comments you get during this period are as important as all the written feedback. I ensured this ran smoothly by naming people one by one and asking them to un-mute themselves. Being a clear facilitator is important here.

  • Remember to record your webinar so you can listen to it again.